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Earlier this week, the D.C. public library system boasted in a press release that it had hired 117 new employees to staff the city's 25 neighborhood libraries as they take on expanded operating hours starting on Oct. 1.
But any celebration of longer hours may be premature—the potential federal government shutdown coming next week could leave the libraries with no open hours at all.
How local libraries are tied to federal spending is part of the vagaries of being the District of Columbia, a city that's locally governed but still subject to the whims of Congress, which is allowed to exercise "exclusive legislation" over the capital city that is home to 632,000 people. Every law that is passed by the D.C. Council is reviewed by Congress, and legislators on the Hill can—and often do—try and pass bills targeting only D.C.
As for money, D.C.'s $10.1 billion budget—$6 billion of which is locally raised and used to pay for city services—is tied to the fate of the federal budget. While D.C. legislators passed their most recent budget in June, it still has to be passed by Congress as part of the budget funding the federal government. By consequence, if Congress fails to come to an agreement on spending levels by next Tuesday, large parts of the D.C. government will, like federal agencies, have to close.
While essential services like police, firefighters and schools will remain on the job, D.C.'s recreation centers, libraries and even the DMV will go dark. (Trash pickup would not stop altogether, though it would happen less often.) As Congress again bickers about how much—or how little—the federal government should be spending, the $8 million set aside by local legislators for the extended hours at neighborhood libraries will go unspent.
That isn't going down well with D.C.'s elected officials, which are debating the option of declaring all of the city's 32,000 employees, including those 117 new library workers, "essential" workers that need to stay on the job during the shutdown. For Mayor Vincent Gray, who is considering the Council's plan, the issue boils down to local control of local dollars.
"We just hired 117 new librarians because we're going to expand hours at our libraries on Oct. 1. Except under this scenario, you would have the libraries closed. What are we supposed to tell [the public]? What are they to do at that stage? Those are decisions that should be made by us. There's absolutely no reason to shut down the District of Columbia government because those are our taxpayer dollars, our property taxes, our sales taxes, our income taxes," he said.
The threat of a local shutdown comes amid fervent attempts to decouple D.C.'s budget from the federal budget. In April, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that would offer the city more control of its locally raised dollars, but it does not go into effect until January. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, for her part, has introduced various bills that would allow the D.C. government to stay open even if the federal government doesn't; those bills, though, have not moved forward.
If the shutdown is averted or the Council deems all library employees essential, the extended hours will see D.C.'s 25 neighborhood libraries remain open until 9 p.m. on four weekdays (up from two) and on Sundays.
If not, there is at least one sliver of good news: according to library spokesman George Williams, overdue fines will not be charged during a shutdown.